Commentary by
Roger Martin

Roger Martin: Diane Arbus focuses on family dysfunctions

by Roger Martin

"Family" is a wonderfully pliable word, referring to a group of people living under one roof or, more broadly, to any group of things that are more or less alike.

A show of Diane Arbus photographs on display at the Spencer of Museum of Art at the University of Kansas through Jan. 16 reflects "family" in both senses.

John Pultz, Spencer curator of photography, is one of the exhibit's organizers. He also co-wrote the catalog, "Diane Arbus: Family Albums," published by Yale University Press.

Arbus earned fame in the 1960s for her personality studies of celebrities for Esquire and other magazines. The show runs an unlikely gamut from atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair to those TV icons of bland familyhood, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art included her photographs in a three-person show. An excited Arbus wrote to a friend that she was putting together a book of photographs with the working title "Family Album," Pultz says.

Comparing herself to Noah, Arbus wrote, "I can hardly bear to leave any animal out." Pultz and Anthony Lee of Mount Holyoke College, who put the Spencer show together, have sorted her "animals" by type.

One section is labeled "Fathers." Here you can check out a boyish novelist named Norman Mailer or Dr. Donald Gatch, a nattily dressed, pipe-smoking do-gooder standing outside a shanty whose doorway frames Addie Taylor, an African-American woman.

In the "Mothers" section are Tokyo Rose, a World War II radio propagandist who tried to sweet-talk American soldiers into surrendering, and a Baltimore stripper named Blaze Starr in her way-over-the-top living room.

There are other sections for "partners," "children" and, yes, "families."

These are not happy photos. But they make us think.

In one Ozzie and Harriet portrait, Harriet frowns harshly. It seems bizarre because that emotional coloring wasn't in the palette of the TV show. Nevertheless, strain did exist in the Nelson family once the boys, David and Rick, grew up. In an Esquire profile, David was especially critical of the family.

Ozzie and Harriet are pictured on a lawn, but Arbus preferred shooting indoors, often in bedrooms.

She did this in 1964 with atheist O'Hair, whose family also suffered strain. When son William came home complaining of having to pray in school, Murray took the matter to court. As an adult William became an evangelical Christian who spoke against his mother.

The largest space in the show goes to images from a two-day shoot commissioned by a family of Manhattan socialites.

Pultz says you can see how uninspired Arbus was during long stretches of the shoot -- until she locks onto an image that moves her.

In this case, it is of a daughter, Marcella. She stands, still and expressionless as a cat, her bangs grown nearly to her eyelids, knock-kneed. Her rigid body radiates anxiety.

If Stanley Kubrick had made a sequel to his horror movie "The Shining," Marcella would deserve to be in it. The picture's creepy. And it's not the only creepy one in the show.

One reason may be that these stills were taken at a time when the nation was torn by war -- and so were its many different kinds of families. Diane Arbus launched her ark in a tempest, and the stress shows in the faces of many who are on board.


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